Kylie, “The Abbey Road Sessions” (Astralwerks). Dance music starlets have a tough time aging gracefully in public. So much of what made them popular in the first place tends to involve a physicality based on youth. The songs are invariably about love, sex and how the two might intermingle on the dance floor. All fine and dandy when you're twentysomething. Much tougher to pull off convincingly when you make it past the 40-year-old marker. Just ask Madonna. Kylie Minogue is not the first crafter of vapid dance-pop ditties to seek a valid avenue toward maturity. But “The Abbey Road Sessions” suggests she is the most successful. Here, the singer attempts to recast some of her biggest plastic pop hits and anthems to young lust as grown-up love songs. How? By adding an orchestra, naturally! It isn't tough to cast a cynical eye toward a project like this one, just as one does when, say, a heavy metal band attempts to get “serious” by adding gratuitous string arrangements to otherwise meat-headed drivel. And Kylie's chirpy dance floor groovers aren't exactly begging for torch song arrangements, are they? Yet somehow, the marriage seems to work. For the first time in her career, Minogue seems comfortable with the fact that she isn't 20 any longer. At 44, her voice has taken on a more warm, round tone, and that greatly benefits the material. That material consists of the singer's back catalog, naturally. “Sessions” is really a greatest hits package with a facelift. But the facelift flatters – “Slow,” for example, loses its techno-ish bump & grind an gains a smoky, bluesy feel; “On A Night Like This” is reimagined as a big band burner; “I Should Be So Lucky” loses the disco thump and gains a more languid feel, aided by lush strings; and Nick Cave shows up to reprise the duet “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” which is a nice touch. Two and a half stars (Jeff Miers)
Elvis Presley, “Prince from Another Planet” recorded at Madison Square Garden in 1972 (RCA Legacy, two discs plus DVD). The title of this terrific live set of Elvis in Madison Square Garden comes from Chris Chase's review of Elvis' concert in the June 18, 1972, editions of the New York Times. It was Elvis' first-ever New York concert series. The gig opened with a comic universally deplored at the time. Elvis did two shows preserved here – a matinee and an evening show. “A champion, the only one in his class” was how Chase described an evening concert in the venue of so many sports contests. Of the two June 10 concerts here, the evening show isn't nearly as strong as the matinee (which substituted an early Elvis classic “Blue Suede Shoes” and Don Gibson's “I'll Remember You” for the Vegas vibrato throb of the evening show's “The Impossible Dream.” Yes, this is the schlock Elvis of the Vegas years with those scarves and rhinestone-studded bell-bottom jump suits. But his relationship to his audience was as full of teasing affection as it had been in his earliest years so that he was well-nigh irresistible no matter who you were. And he always remembered how to rock – primally in fact. And in his band, the great guitar player James Burton was always there to help him remember, should it ever become necessary. Four stars. (Jeff Simon)
“Now That's What I Call Music 44” (EMI). Some of these regular catch-alls of all the current hitmaking around are pretty good. The occasional first-rate pop record – by Adele, say – will stand out and elevate the rest. Nothing does that here. It's a roll call of hitmakers from Pink to Maroon 5 to Justin Bieber to Nicki Minaj to Chris Brown to Katy Perry to Kelly Clarkson to Usher to, well you get the idea. And to remember anything on the disc you have to try – except, of course, for Psy's “Gangam Style,” which isn't really most people's idea of music unless you're watching the, uh, choreography of the video. (J.S.)
John Williams, “Lincoln” music (SONY Classical). Ever since Aaron Copland's “A Lincoln Portrait” more than 60 years ago, there has been no way on God's green earth that soundtrack music for any Lincoln film on any size screen at all would be anything but Coplandesque, full of pastoral modes and Appalachian folk flavors. I suspect, though, that may be responsible for this definitely being among the lesser John Williams scores for Spielberg movies. Filmmaker and composer have been making films together for 40 years but I suspect that the subject matter tied Williams' hands far more than usual. It functions as a backdrop in the movie and it's pleasant enough on disc, even if so derivative of our greatest American symphonic composer of folk-derived Americana that it can't help but make you wish you were hearing a great ballet score by Copland instead (or, even more, a film score by Copland's friend and folk-adapting inspiration Virgil Thomson). Two and a half stars. (J.S.)
Benedikt Jahnel Trio, “Equilibrum” (ECM). It's not specifically true that every current ECM piano trio sounds alike. On the other hand, no one would be likely to be arrested for libel to get caught in the act of saying so. What you have here is a German/Spanish/American trio. Thirtysomething lead pianist Jahnel was born in France, raised in Germany and has honed his art with the likes of Phil Woods, Charlie Mariano, Dave Liebman and John Abercrombie. Drummer Owen Howard met him when he taught in Berlin as a guest professor and continued his relationship with Jahnel when Howard was back in Brooklyn and Jahnel lived in New York from 2005-06. Spanish bassist Antonio Miguel – studying in New York with John Patitucci – completes the group. To hear this predominantly lyrical post-Bill Evans jazz piano is to have no clue whatsoever that Jahnel has a second life as a mathematics researcher at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. For those who need correlation, says ECM's publicity material, Jahnel will only maintain a fascination with “those microcopic phenomena, appearing randomly or better: intuitively between musicians in a group – those many little things that make a band unique.” Like Brad Mehldau in the states (whom he seems most to resemble, without the hard swinging fluidity), Jahnel does his share of putting his hands inside the piano innards looking for sonorities. His first disc on Material Records was called “Modular Concepts.” That will indicate his sort of musical mind. Three stars (J.S.)
Michael Nyman, Chamber Music Vol. 1 – Piano Trios 1992-2010 performed by Fidelio Trio (MN); Vol. 2 String Quartets 1-3 performed by the Balanescu Quartet (MN). Wait just a minute here. What, you might well ask, is Alex North's main theme for “Unchained” doing flying by in one of the movements of his first String Quartet? Easy. He modeled the early work on two sources, Schoenberg's Second String Quartet and a set of keyboard variations by 17th century composer John Bull on the popular song of his day “Walsingham.” “It is art based on popular music,” writes the minimalist composer who, as a brilliant critic, was, in fact, the first to apply the word “minimalism” to music and remains one of the most interesting composers in the genre. (As well as one of the most interesting writers on music of the past half century.)
It is Nyman's film scores – for “The Piano” most famously – that are the best-known, but all of his music is unfailingly interesting and listenable in ways that don't always apply to his fellow minimalists Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley.
All of this is worthy, the trio performances mostly from 2010 and the quartet performances from the early '90s. three stars for the trios, three and a half stars for the quartets. (J.S.)